Plastic pyrolysis: IDTechEx Research Suggests Converting Waste to Fuels Could Help the World Overcome Its Plastic Problem

17 July 2020

The world has a problem with plastic waste and despite global plastic production continuing to accelerate, recycling rates remain stubbornly low., with only about 15% of the 400 million tonnes of plastic currently produced annually being recycled, according to the OECD. Although recycling rates have been steadily growing over the last 30 years, the rate of global plastic production far outstrips this, meaning that more and more plastic is ending up dumped in landfills and released into the environment, where it can wreak havoc on ecosystems around the world. IDTechEx believes that better end-of-life options for plastic waste are needed to help support current recycling efforts and turn the tide on plastic waste.

From an IDTechEx report, a promising emerging technology is plastic pyrolysis, a chemical process that breaks plastics down into their raw materials. A key product is a liquid resembling crude oil, which can be burned as fuel or used as a chemical feedstock to create new plastic products, enabling a closed-loop process. Although pyrolysis has been known about for a while, in recent years interest in the technology has taken off, with companies such as Recycling Technologies and Agilyx claiming they are developing large-scale reactors capable of processing thousands of tonnes of plastic waste per year.

IDTechEx believes that unlike the mechanical processes that currently dominate the global recycling landscape, plastic pyrolysis works with mixed plastic and can be used with almost any type of common plastic waste. For example, mechanically recycling waste plastic into new plastic bottles requires extensive processing, with time-consuming and expensive sorting and cleaning. Even then, plastics tend to degrade every time they are reprocessed, leading to downcycling and meaning that they are unusable after about six cycles. Not so for pyrolysis – plastic can be broken down into oil, which can then be turned into plastics completely indistinguishable from virgin plastics.

However, there are downsides, IDTechEx states.  Heating the plastics until they degrade requires a lot of energy and the resulting oil often requires extensive processing before it can be used for the same processes as crude oil. Contamination is also an issue – chlorine and oxygen-containing polymer can lead to acidic products that can cause problems. Nevertheless, the industry is growing rapidly, according to IDTechEx, and investors and governments are hopeful that chemical recycling can form part of a coordinated global effort to improve sustainability.

For an in-depth review of chemical recycling technologies, as well as an exploration of the global market for recycling technologies, please see the recent IDTechEx report, "Polymer Recycling Technologies 2020-2030" or for the full portfolio of research available from IDTechEx please visit

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